Just Keep Your Head Above.

I willingly went inside.

Has this felt like New Years to everyone?

I spent New Year’s with my father’s side of the family. I come from a divorced household, spending time mostly with our small family unit in the States, far from my father. This forced relocation has given me a chance to reacquaint myself with aunts and uncles, and cousins and second cousins (once removed) that I love so much, and the more I spend time with them, the more I love them. I see parts of them in myself- it’s interesting to me to see the ties that bind us, in spite of the distance and the years.

As part of our familial celebration we headed to one of the hundreds of under ground grottos, this one of relative ease and a cenote big enough to swim in at the end of our expedition. I’d spent the good part of Dec. 31st listening to my cousin Amador’s tales of extreme caving to have the curiosity to do it myself.

I mean, it would be easy, and we’d be taking the kids, and what a great family activity, right? How many people go caving as a family? How great is my life anyway?

So, we packed ourselves into two SUVs and started on our early afternoon expedition.
Upon arriving there were three very different sets of people:

The first I will call the foreigners- they were a group of 8 composed of 4 European/American adults, with 4 little tykes. They came with a map and knee pads, helmets, an abundance of lamps and sufficient amounts of water.

The next (in which I was in) were the locals- it consisted of about 12 people, 4 of them children in various states of dress with sneakers, no helmets, some lamps and what could be considered insufficient amounts of water.

The last, was our tour guide, whom I will call a native- his house was right next to the grotto. He had no lamp, took no water, was wearing flip flops, cut off bermuda shorts and an ill fitting tank top. He was also noticeably hung over.

Right before we started our trek Amador took one look at me and said “Take as much as you can off, and carry as little as possible. Trust me.” It was a moment of doubt, but I’m glad I listened- because as silly as I felt the moment I saw the foreigners, I realized the reason for Amador’s advice 30 minutes into our descent: under ground grottos are hot to the point of wanting to crawl out of your skin. The stone walls are wet from the humidity, and if you lift your lamp inside its dark belly you will see the miniscule water droplets floating as if they were dust particles. We spent the better part of an hour looking at formations in the rocks, climbing/descending, and holding on to ropes and walking further from the foreigners who decided to disassociate themselves from us and who had a surprise Argentine in their ranks who managed to call the rest of us a bunch of irresponsible miscreants in a way that could not be ignored and thus alienated herself from the rest of the group even more.

As we headed to the 10th of the cenotes- the one we’d finally be able to swim in- the guide informed us that we would be having to go through some very tight spots.

Did you know that it is possible to walk in the fetal position? I didn’t. Not until that day, where I was somehow walking steps while hunched into a small ball. At one point I had to crawl through a hole. We reached a place where we could stretch when the guide informed us that we had one more tight space to move through.

I had a lot of panicked thoughts in that moment- what if I could not breathe? How long would it take? What if I died from the heat? How long could my legs take all the dipping and compartmentalizing and weird positions?

And then we got there- to the biggest part of the cave, with a cenote ready for swimming. It occurred to me in that moment, amidst the running to fresh water to swim in and rinse the dirt off that the hardest part is always right before the pay off. The final push always feels like death- you’re too tired. You’re worn out. You’re done.

And then you get there.

I am also convinced that the real secrets of life lie 150 feet underground, in a dark cave with a lake. I thought of how God takes men into deep waters to cleanse them, not to drown them. I thought of the new year, of the madness and the mess in my last three January firsts, of the days that lay ahead mysterious, and exciting.

And as I dove in deep to feel the water surrounding me I realized- the foreigners hadn’t made it. And who would be the most sure footed amongst us? Why, if it wasn’t the hung over native!  Sometimes you can’t prepare enough, and sometimes you’re not prepared. But you can get through it much better than you know, or anticipate if you just trust yourself. Even if you’re hung over (and in our guides case, I am sure he has been doing this for decades- the cave guiding and the drinking.).

We ended up having to go back the same way we came- surprisingly, knowing what we were up against made it go a lot quicker. I was in and out of the tight spots in about 10 minutes. It probably helped that I was pretending to be a kitten at my 7 year old cousin’s suggestion (Thanks Sofia!).

On the way out, Leonardo fell asleep- he’s all of 18 months old, and went limp right out of the tighter spot. His father had him in a baby carrier across his chest, and Leonardo slept without a care in the world, while the rest of us wanted to crawl out of our clothes.  Our group thought he had fainted until the sound of his light snoring filled the cave.

I knew we were close to the entrance/exit when the temperature suddenly changed- being close to the surface, the air went cool again, and after two minutes I wanted a sweater. Suddenly we didn’t need our lamps and we could see the afternoon sunlight coming in through the cave. I climbed up the stone steps like Persephone, coming from the underworld.

And maybe I was.


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